Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Game Review: SONIC THE HEDGEHOG

>>> NOW LOADING



SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sonic Team
  • Release:
    • XBox 360: 14 November 2006
    • PlayStation 3: 30 January 2007
  • Genre: Third-Person Action
  • Players: 1-2
Okay, by now, if you're a repeat visitor of this blog (in which case WHY HAVE YOU NOT SUBSCRIBED YET), you may have noticed my running gag of mentioning the sad fate of the would-be video game Mega Man Legends 3.  Subsequently, if you haven't yet Liked the Facebook group GetMeOffTheMoon, the movement to revive development of Legends 3, you have no soul.  Now, I can't remember any specific links to this, but on said page I have also read about a (considerably smaller) movement to plead of Sega to make a Sonic Adventure 3. What if I told you we already have a Sonic Adventure 3?  And what if it was so bad you might disregard it and resume petitioning for a real Sonic Adventure sequel?  Such is the sad fate of 2006's SONIC THE HEDGEHOG for XBox 360 and PlayStation 3.  (NB: From here on in, I'm writing its title in capital letters to differentiate it from the Sega Genesis title, since PSN does the same.)

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Running from a killer whale.  Deja vu.
There is a plot to be had, in which a certain Princess Elise is kidnapped by Dr. Eggman (whoa, encroaching on Bowser's territory there), who seeks from her something called the Flames of Disaster.  Time travel is also involved.  But let's put that aside for the moment and examine the first levels of the game.  From an urban hub world (which by the way, is easy to get lost in with the little-to-no guidance you're given), you transfer to Wave Ocean, set on a beach, cliffs, and wooden walkways, capped off with a chase from a killer whale.  Sound familiar?  That's because this concept was copied directly from the first level of Sonic Adventure!  And multiple other settings, such as the snow world and the volcano, appear in Sonic's story in a similar order as their Adventure counterparts.  This being the case, I would totally not be surprised if Sonic Team revealed this to be an attempt at making an HD remake of Adventure.  Unfortunately, they left Adventure's (admittedly vast) room for error unimproved whilst fouling up in nearly every other conceivable aspect.

Like the Sonic Adventure duology, the single-player mode is broken up into three stories, each starring a different hedgehog.  Sonic gets one, Shadow another, and the third stars the newcomer Silver.  The majority of levels are no-frills 3D platforming, your objective being to reach the end of each level, somehow surviving every obstacle to come your way.  The levels feature your standard array of loops, spikes, dash pads, and checkpoints, as seen in Sonic Adventure.  It's too bad the control scheme and movement physics are still poorly-suited for a 3-D platformer.  Like for example, and for the record this problem has been around since Sonic Adventure, if you turn whilst running, your player character will not lose momentum.  As the Sonic franchise had yet to overcome its crippling addiction of adding new characters for each new outing, every so often you'll tag with characters like Tails, Knuckles, Rouge and Blaze, to clear passages as them and help out the main character.  They all have unique mechanics, i.e. Tails can fly and throw fake-ring bombs, but these tend to backfire.  For example, in the case of Tails, the flight controls are even more twitchy than those on foot, making landing on a precise spot a tense chore, and whilst you can aim projectiles, there's no cursor for doing so, adding an unwelcome and unnecessary bit of guesswork to the matter.  At least the Knuckles treasure hunts of Adventure/2 are a thing of the past.

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This format extends to all three campaigns, Sonic, Shadow and Silver, but with their own separate twists.  In some parts of Sonic's levels, you are "treated" to high-speed chase sequences, and I mean "treated" with the thickest sarcasm I can muster.  In these auto-running passages, Sonic must dodge all obstacles, from enemies to lowly rocks and trees, lest he take damage and lose either rings or a life.  This wouldn't be so bad, except the controls are so touchy that even keeping a straight course requires nerves of steel.  In a more sensible control scheme, pressing Left or Right on the joystick would make Sonic strafe in that direction whilst still facing the same way, but as it's implented here, turning left or right means literally turning your course left or right.  If you're on a walkway trying to collect some precious rings or a 1-up, but touching the guardrails on either side will hurt you, you can see why this would be a problem.  The Sonic Unleashed engine shows how this mechanic could be done right, so we can't say Sonic Team doesn't learn from their mistakes.
Silver the Hedgehog can control objects with telekinesis --
and break the physics engine doing so.
Meanwhile, Shadow can hop into armed vehicles when available (Dangit Sega, we're trying to forget Shadow The Hedgehog!).  Silver, being gifted with psychic powers, can maniplate objects with telekinesis, and throw them back at enemies and other targets.  You think I'd find that awesome, but my experiences controlling Silver have left me coloured unimpressed.  See, SONIC THE HEDGEHOG incorporates the Havok physics engine, made famous by Half-Life 2, a game I really liked.  But SONIC THE HEDGEHOG turns that asset into a liability, because collision detection is constantly on the fritz, and coupled with the stiff and unruly camera and the hyped-up control sensitivity, makes for unnecessarily challenging movement.    Whilst collision issues have been around since Adventure, what's new here is that there are all manner of physics glitches brought upon by the Havok engine, as implemented in this game.  One example has Sonic doing trip-attacks atop a crate, causing the box and Sonic to inexplicably rise up in the air.  See the video below for this and other examples.

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And now to discuss what is perhaps the game's most infamous iss--

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--ue.  You guessed it: the loading times.  It's not that each bout of loading is incredibly long -- most individual loads take but twenty seconds apiece on the PS3 version -- but that they are frequent and horribly inefficient.  For example, take the case of an early boss fight against Silver, which takes place in a section of one of the overworld towns.  The current state of investigations seems to indicate that when loading this fight, the entire town is sent over from the disc, despite the fight taking place in a relatively enclosed space the size of one city block.  Or take the numerous side-missions, triggered by speaking with people across the overworld.  Whilst only a handful are required to complete the story, they'll get on your nerves, and here's why:
  1. Talk to the person.
  2. 20 seconds of loading.
  3. Read a line or two of non-voiced text, vaguely describing your objective.
  4. 20 seconds of loading.
  5. Play the mission.
  6. 20 seconds of loading.
  7. Read a line of non-voiced text, confirming your success or failure.  If you won the mission, your results and rewards are also displayed.
  8. 20 seconds of loading.
  9. Return to the town.  If you failed the mission, repeat from step 1.
Are you wondering why there's so much loading before steps 3 and 7, if nothing much is happening?  Again, it is highly likely that the game is reloading the entire town during these steps, even though you're only waiting to read a line or two of text -- without even voice acting!  What they should've done is display these minuscule monologues on the loading screens, thus knocking out any excuses for reloading the world for a scene that only lasts for mere seconds.  But what do I know about big-budget game development?  I'm sure Sonic Team knows something I don't about how to go about these things, given the time and effort they spent on the project -- oh wait, they crammed to put it out for Christmas and the PlayStation 3 launch.  Let this be a lesson that cram schedules will get you nowhere.  It backfired for the Atari E.T., and it backfired here.

>>> NOW That's enough, this loading joke has gone on long enough.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG is one of the most offensive video games I have yet played.  True, there are games out there that are quantifiably worse, not to mention intentionally offensive, but SONIC THE HEDGEHOG specifically offends my sensibilties as a gamer.  And it's not like there aren't good touches here and there, like the purchasable and upgradable Custom Actions.  And it's not like I don't want this to exist, I want it to be better.  I mean, just a few little tweaks here and there could've been applied to make the final product passable, perhaps even good.  First of all, trim all that fat off of the loading times.  Make a control scheme that doesn't feel like you're sliding on ice.  Give us a better indication of what to do next in the overworlds, or axe them completely.  Not to mention, throw in a metric butt-load of extra testing time.  ...Shoot, that's a lot of stuff to fix.  On second thought, just scrap the whole thing and give us Sonic Colors.

Control: 1 Chaos Emerald out of 5
Design: 2 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Graphics: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Audio: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 25% (F)

NB: I should note that my experiences playing SONIC THE HEDGEHOG were based on the PlayStation 3 version, which followed the original release on XBox 360 by a couple of months.  Despite the extra time, the PS3 port is somehow worse.  Loading times are several seconds longer on the PS3 than the 360, and despite the eventual support for Trophies on PS3 games, the counterpart Achievements from the 360 version were never patched into the other one (and I know for a fact this has been done).  This is cause for concern on the matter of the collectable Silver Medallions.  These unlock nothing within the game itself, but find them all in the XBox 360 port, and you win an Achievement for it.  But without a corresponding Trophy, the Silver Medallions are worthless.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Editorial: XBox One vs. Atari 5200

Edit 23 June 2013:  As of the 19th, Microsoft has officially announced that their plans for the XBox One to limit the running of used games, as well as require an online connection once every 24 hours, will not be implemented in the final product.  Thus, vast chunks of my article below have been rendered null and void.  Still, I'll keep it up for posterity's sake.  And now for the main event.  ...But first, a prologue!

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed 007 Legends, a video game which received a port for the Wii U, the first combatant in the eight-generation console war.  More recently, news has been rolling in about its future competitors -- and in the case of the XBox One, it hasn't been so good.  So much that I can't help but to connect it to the past...  But before we get to that, I have an announcement to make.  As an effort to prop up the sagging view count of my video reviews, I have decided to embed said videos into my articles on this very blog!  Look for the "video" tag on my new and existing posts, or better yet, click this link to search for them right away.  And seeing as how my most-viewed article yet, "The Top 10 Worst Pitbull Lyrics", got its own episode back in my first season, there should be great potential in this endeavour.  Good, now that that's covered, on with the show!

Left: The XBox One.  Right: The Atari 5200.
Colour-coded for your convenience!
Ladies and gentlemen, our beloved video game industry is at a crossroads that will make or break its future.  The transition to the eighth console generation is upon us, with Nintendo's Wii U already on shelves, to be followed later this year by the PlayStation 4 by Sony and the XBox One by Microsoft.  I'm going to jump the gun and say that I have no immediate plans to purchase any of these three devices.  Having only recently stepped up to a PS3, I'm just now acclimating to the full potential of the current console generation, and I have to say it's doing something right.  But how much of this will pass over to the next generation, and whether or not any bad aspects will eclipse the good, remains to be seen.  In fact, the future has me so scared, that I'm willing to draw conclusions to the landscape thirty years ago which led to the Video Game Crash of 1983 -- and willing to dissect my own points in the hopes of disproving them.  Specifically, here are some reasons why the XBox One will be the second coming of the infamous Atari 5200, followed by some reasons why it won't.
  • It's big.  Not sure if that'll make or break either, but let's get the small stuff out of the way first.
  • It makes you go through hoops to connect the durn thing.  The Atari 5200 "innovated" with its hookups; instead of having separate power and signal outputs on the console itself, it had one port which led to an automatic switch box, to and from which you would hook up the TV connection and power cord.  Whilst in some ways an improvement over the RF switches that came before it (you get a brownie if you remember what an RF switch is), it bulked up and complicated the hookup situation -- something that was already bulked up and complicated enough.
    I realise this isn't the same thing, but I am drawing a slight connection to the XBox One's online-only rumours that have flown off and on our collective radar.  As it stands, it can only run games -- even offline, single-player games -- within 24 hours of connecting to the internet.  It's no secret that the Internet has been, on the whole, a great boon to gamers, enabling soloists to experience multiplayer offerings and the convenience of digital distribution.  But let's face it: not everyone can afford a decent Internet connection, especially in this economy (if we're still allowed to make that excuse).  Or maybe people like to travel with their consoles and hook them up in places where they can't get an Internet connection.  So you can by now you can see the problem with a console that refuses to play even hard-copy games without being suitably plugged into the interwebs.  Yes, you giant software conglomerates, I do recognise your opinion that moves like this could hinder piracy, but is it really worth alienating the 99.9999999999 (I could go on) percent of consumers who abide by the law?  And besides, don't you have enough money already?
  • TV integration.  While I've just maligned the 5200's connector box, it was designed to automatically switch from displaying TV signals to the 5200's output when it was switched on.  The XBox One, in being touted as an all-in-one entertainment centre, rather infamously had touted its abilities to play subscription-based video servies like HBO, in addition to making Skype video calls at the same time.  That's nice and all, but why not use separate machines we may already own to do the same?
  • The controller.  The 5200's controller was panned for its numeric keypad and its analog joystick (admittedly, an innovation in 1982) which didn't re-center.  Certainly the traditional controller sold with the XBox One should be just fine.  I mean, they fixed the D-Pad!  No, I'm talking about the Kinect camera.  I've never tried its 360 counterpart, but if my past experiences with the PlayStation 2's EyeToy is anything to go by, I expect the Kinect to fail in all but the simplest of motion-tracking tasks.  And now I'm hearing the XBox One requires the Kinect to run, just to entice us with all those juicy voice commands?  No, I'm sure Microsoft won't use this as a clever ploy to spy on us, with malicious intent or otherwise, (Right?  ...Right???) but it still presents its own problems, like if the Kinect were to, say, break.  Oh, and the one thing the 5200 and XBox One have in common?  No backwards compatibility with their predecessor's controllers, despite the fact that those controllers could work in all manner of other machines.
  • Speaking of which, no backwards compatibility with older games is another shared drawback of the 5200 and XBox One.  Microsoft has stated that the XBox One's hardware and software architecture has been revamped in such a manner as to render 360 emulation impractical if not impossible.  And I can understand that... doesn't mean I like it.
  • Finally, the price.  The Atari 5200 sold for US$299 at its launch in November 1982.  At the time, the 5-year-old 2600 was selling for half as much.  The XBox One will start at US$499 upon its release in November 2013.  Meanwhile, the Wii U and PS4 cost / will cost upwards of $300 and $400 respectively.
And now for some differences that will allay fears of history repeating -- or create new fears where none existed previously.
  • Peoples' concept of video games has changed drastically over the past thirty years.  Our hobby has achieved more understanding amongst the non-gaming public, save the odd lunatic to "preach" against virtual violence, and in some ways, has become more mainstream.  Case in point: over its subsequent releases, the subsequent Call of Duty titles have garnered the greatest opening-weekend profit for any piece of entertainment across all media -- more than movies, more than music, more than books.
  • Used game lockouts.  I don't know if there was a burgeoning used-game market in the time of the Atari 5200, but one thing's for sure: we have one now.  And now the XBox One is going to limit their proliferations through means currently unclarified.  So far I understand that there will be a fee for installing a game on more than one console, and there are rules beyond that which have totally lost me.  Now, I haven't always seen eye-to-eye with the major game retail chains -- more like chain, singular, as I haven't seen a stand-alone EB Games store in years.  Personally, I blame their refusal to stock anything from the 20th century -- in fact, I know a GameStop location that, as I'm writing this, is clearing out their stock PlayStation 2 games.  Yeah, turns out that some people still like retro gaming.  Speaking of which, if you live in the Philadelphia area and are tired of suckling off of the EB-GameStop teat, might I suggest a visit to:

    Classic Game Junkie
    111 South Easton Road
    Glenside, PA 19038


    Yes, product placement.  Happens to the best of us.  Back on point, I've taken issue with that and the overly-promoted rip-off that is trading in games.  But without people selling their software to the stores, we wouldn't have their delightful array of used games.  So my point is, some people will giveth, and some will taketh away.
  • Last but most importantly, GAMES.  The 5200 only managed 69 games in its library.  Whilst the XBox One doesn't yet have its own library of games, technically speaking, we already have 44 titles announced at the time of writing -- and that's only retail titles!  One thing I've noticed over the current generation is the divergence of the market into two tiers: the full-budget, triple-A titles on the one hand, and the smaller-scale downloadable titles on the other.  I have to say, I admire this development at least in theory.  Independent developers now have the opportunity to get their video games onto consoles without being hindered by a huge operating cost or the counter-productive whims of marketing execs.  At the same time, the big retail titles are still able to push the technical and graphical boundaries further and further.  Besides, I'll admit to Call of Duty being a guilty pleasure of mine, if only for its online multiplayer model.
Come to think of it, this precarious dichotomy serves as a model for the video game industry in macrocosm.  In short, our hobby is becoming more corporatised.  In long, not only are triple-A titles converging into a giant grey blob of sameyness, but still manage to rake in millions upon millions of currency units (not to mention coverage on the lame-stream media outlets).  And just as the software is fast falling prey to what the know-nothing marketing execs think will sell, the hardware (more so the XBox One) is playing to the paranoid whims of the boys from accounting.  So all that being the case, it is my hope, if not prediction, that the XBox One will be a total washout.  But more importantly, it shows that if the video game market implodes, it won't implode in the same ways it did in the early 80s.  We'll still have the spirit of originality which only independent developers will provide.   Either that or we can have the Japanese bail us out again.

And when the buck are we going to get Mega Man Legends 3!?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Game Review: 007 Legends

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Mega Man Legends and its sequel.  And now for something completely different.


007 Legends
  • Publisher: Activision
  • Developer: Eurocom
  • Release:
    • PlayStation 3 / XBox 360, 16 October 2012
    • Wii U, 11 December 2012
  • Genre: 3D Action (First-person shooter)
  • Players: 1-4 offline, 2-12 online
Funny thing about Mega Man Legends 3: even though I've been raising such a stink about how it was cancelled ever since I heard of its untimely demise, I actually don't have much of an emotional investment Mega Man as a whole, apart from re-discovering how much of a great sequel the second Legends game was.  As a matter of fact, my favourite fandom is James Bond, and you should know that by now, seeing as how I devoted 24 reviews last year to all its films (that matter).  As such, I waited eagerly for the 2010 GoldenEye remake on Wii, and my expectations were met, on the whole, but there's frankly no need for me to review it when its follow up is so similar.  Replace the self-contained plot of GoldenEye (either the N64 or Wii one) with a buffet of neo-retro film reboots, and you get the follow-up Activision and Eurocom pulled off for 007's 50th anniversary, known as 007 Legends.

Given its role as an anniversary milestone, Legends's storyline is more or less a tribute to Bonds past.  The settings are re-imagined excerpts from various films, one for each actor who played 007: Goldfinger (from the Sean Connery era), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (George Lazenby), Licence to Kill (Timothy Dalton), Die Another Day (Pierce Brosnan), and Moonraker (Roger Moore).  On the whole it's a fine selection, I will admit, however the incorporation of Die Another Day in a retelling of other Bond stories is redundant, seeing as how the film itself is a re-hashing of the franchise's famous moments.  With or without that choice of source material, in terms of storytelling, this may not have been the best way to go about things.  Unlike, say, GoldenEye (either one) which had the time to build up a plot and the antagonist's reasoning behind setting it into motion, each of the five stories in Legends relies on awkward info-dumps to explain everything.  If you've never seen the movies in question, you may get left in the proverbial dust.  The environments capture the essence of their silver-screen counterparts with a modern flair to create a very slick aesthetic worthy of the 007 legacy.  It's too bad the characters' stilted facial animations and the terribly dodgy shadows have to negate those graphical strong points.  A handful of actors from those films have returned to provide likeness and voice talents; however Bond himself, here modeled after Daniel Craig, has received a sound-alike voice actor, and not a very good one at that.  Dude, mister Goldfinger is about to cut you in half with a frickin' laser beam, you think you could at least sound scared?
Say what you want about Moonraker, but it makes for a fun level.
But despite all the fanservice, there was one thing that totally soured the experience for me: the levels they divided these scenes into are too dang few and too dang long.  There are only eleven levels, and the majority can last a half-hour or longer.  As discussed in my review of Goldeneye: Rogue Agent, having to invest more time on a level diminishes its replay attractiveness.  But it gets worse: because of these larger levels, the loading times average around one minute a pop*.  And if you need to re-start from a checkpoint, due to death or choice, that's another minute's worth of loading headed your way!  Now, compare that to the Call of Duty games, which only waste a few seconds of your time on reloading levels, and there's no justification other than Eurocom sucks at optimisation.  Dangit man, if you're going to imitate something that's already been imitated to the detriment of the industry as a whole, at least imitate it properly!

So enough about what 007 Legends is; what does it play like?  There's a reason I brought up Call of Duty a few sentences ago, because apart from the horrendous loading times, it follows the same basic gameplay precepts of said franchise.  Regenerating health, limited weapon slots, aiming down sights, unskippable cutscenes with quick-time events, and all those other things that have made first-person shooters less than fun.  "But wait", you say, "aren't you forgetting its more innovative features?"  And to that I say: be patient, you.  The Classic health system from Goldeneye (either one) marks a return, only this time you can opt to use it on any difficulty level, not just the hard mode.  Which is good, because I've never been too keen on the concept of regenerating HP, with or without the benefit of superpowers to explain it.  Granted, I will take advantage of it if provided, but if the consequences of your actions (read: damage) are automatically nullified, it takes away from the challenge, which is the reason we play video games on the whole, no?  And because of how long the levels are, you can find not only body armour but health packs in the Classic modes.  A welcome concession, although this should've been taken as a sign that the levels should've been broken up better.

If there's anything that separates the 007 games from the post-Modern Warfare Call of Duty model, even under Activision's tenure, it's the stealth segments, and Legends adds a few "refinements" to the formula.  A meter will pop up around the centre of the screen indicating guards' states of alertness (see also: Far Cry 3).  I would call this helpful, but when you can stand ten metres in front of a guard and it takes him a couple of seconds to even walk over to check it out, well, this game can only support so much willing suspension of disbelief.  Oh, and let's not forget about the gadgets!  In many missions, Bond gets to use a laser watch and a pen that shoots tranquiliser, shock, and distraction darts.  Sure, it's fun to use them all to carve out different paths through the stealth sections, but I for one couldn't help thinking about how the recent films tended to shy away from this sort of techno-gee-wizzery.  Canon?  What canon?
I don't see how lasering a guard helps, but it works wonders on cameras.
In the interest of cinematics, you'll also get into fight scenes where you flick the analog sticks up or down to throw punches.  All the correct moves are identified with on-screen commands, but at the same time your foes leave their own visual cues as to their weak points.  As a result, once I got used to this mechanic, my thought process turned to, "Okay, I get it, you can remove the training wheels now", never to cease.  Furthermore, Legends attempts to bridge the gap between multiplayer and single-player experiences by incorporating features from the former into the latter, namely by a separate experience-point system, and weapon attachments you can purchase with said points.  And in lieu of the time trials from GoldenEye (either one), many levels also feature bonus trials which can be performed on top of your other objectives.  There are still time trials, yes, but also stealth trials, target trials, and elimination/specialist trials, which require you to focus on using one particular gun.  These can be fun, but again, I'd be more inclined to take them on if I didn't have to spend so much time just finishing the level, to say nothing of the loading times I'd incur if I had to re-play any parts.

Speaking of multiplayer, if you're considering purchasing 007 Legends for its online multiplayer component, don't bother.  Yes, it's the traditional level-up-and-unlock-weapons-and-perksgadgets routine that has become another consequence of Call of Duty's dominance of the first-person shooter genre, and I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't hooked onto this sort of thing to some degree.  However, I've only been able to find public matches in the traditional Team Conflict mode, or if I'm lucky, the Legends mode, a free-for-all where you play as classic Bond characters.  Having all those other fun modes like Golden Gun and Escalation but no one to play them with is a darn shame.  Oh well, at least there's always split-screen...

Since 007 Legends does so may good and bad things at the same time, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.  But then I realised...  The over-long levels?  The slavish adherence to other games' customs?  The blatant disregard for canon?  ...This is Activision's answer to Goldeneye: Rogue Agent!  And as I recall, that game didn't turn out so well for EA, who only put out one more underwhelming 007 title before surrendering the licence.  What's more, the case of 007 Legends may be one of history repeating: after its underwhelming retail performance, it was de-listed from various download services, and developer Eurocom was shuttered after almost 25 years in the industry.  Under other circumstances, I'd react with shame, but hopefully this will give the James Bond video game franchise the chance for a fresh start.  (At the risk of starting a flame war, might I suggest Infinity Ward?  At least they can do loading right.)

Positives:
+ Brilliant set designs reinvent the source material.
+ The freedom of stealth sections.
+ The single-player upgrade system.
Negatives:
- Poor story integration.
- Too many generic first-person shooter mechanics.
- Long loading times.*

Control: 4 martinis out of 5
Design: 2 martinis out of 5
Graphics: 3 martinis out of 5
Audio: 3 martinis out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

So that's my review, but before I go, I'd like to indulge in a little editorialising regarding the game's downloadable content.  Two missions based on the new movie Skyfall were made available for free upon the film's release.  In the case of North America, this was three and a half weeks after Legends came out.  The two levels are on the short side, and only cover the first act of the movie, not even mentioning its main villain.  Now, one thing I noticed is that the download size of this "update" was a paltry 100KB*; in other words, it was more than likely a file to unlock content already on the disc.  As someone who has witnessed the tragedy of "disc-locked content" in games like Capcom's Street Fighter X Tekken, this should've sent up a red flag in my head.  But if ever there were a proper excuse for disc-locked content, this would be it.  One, delaying access to the Skyfall content until the movie was released curtailed the possibility of unwittingly walking into spoilers (not that the levels spoil too much about the film anyway).  But most importantly, it's free, so any fears about being coerced into forking over more than the game's purchase price are moot.  But just as a warning to game developers everywhere, and Capcom, do NOT pull this [noun] on us again.  (NB: Also rendering this point moot, the Skyfall levels are available out-of-the-box in the Wii U port, since it was released after the film.)

*Marked observations are based on the PlayStation 3 version.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Game Review: Mega Man Legends 2

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Mega Man Legends, the Blue Bomber's 3D debut.  Now the time is right to cover its sequel!

 Mega Man Legends 2
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Release:
    • PlayStation, 24 October 2000
    • PlayStation Portable, 8 September 2005 (Japan only)
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save:
    • PSX: Memory Card, 1 block
    • PSP: Memory Stick, 360KB

This review was updated on 13 July 2016.
To sum up from my previous review, I thought Mega Man Legends was good but not great.  The two things working against its favour were its controls and its length.  Whilst not deal-breakers, Capcom nonetheless went back to the drawing board for a sequel, and what they came back with shattered all our expectations.  ...Umm, your expectations were shattered, were they?

The story of Legends 2 is more complex than that of its predecessor, depending on how deep you are willing to take it.  It starts out once again on the Flutter, where Megaman Volnutt must put out a fire caused by Data, his monkey save-bot.  (He probably was only trying to pour a bowl of cold cereal and milk.  Harder than it looks, eh?)  So with that crisis extinguished, in more ways than one, your new goal is to find the four keys that will hopefully unlock a treasure called the Mother Lode.  There's also a race of moon-people who guard the Mother Lode, and Megaman's sister Roll is on the search for her parents, who went missing while hunting for the Mother Lode themselves.  If you choose not to stick around for the cutscenes, all you need to know is that this game is longer than its predecessor: Legends 2 lets you play around in 8 dungeons, 5 of which are mandatory.  A speed-run might take you about four to six hours, whereas working to build all the special weapons and complete all the side-quests will clock in at a grand total of 12 to 15 hours.  And unlike the original game being focused around one environment, Legends 2 takes place on all manner of different islands, from the snowy Yosyonke to the desert Saul Kada and the ocean-platform Nino.  So, that's one criticism fixed from one game to the next.  Can Legends 2 fix my other complaint, namely the controls?


Megaman can move whilst locking onto an enemy.
Yes it does -- and without sacrificing the things the original did right.  DualShock controllers are fully supported this time around, using what has since become an industry standard of using the Left Stick to walk and run, and the Right Stick to rotate the camera.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this was one of the first games to utilise this format.  [citation needed]  There's even an option to map the fire buttons to the triggers, making the game play more like the shooters we know and... I don't know about "love", but tolerate today.  Even so, I ended up eschewing this in favour of the original control scheme.  You know, the one where you use the shoulder triggers to turn?  But the controls in Legends 2 manage to top the original in another welcome way.  You remember how the first game had a lock-on function which didn't let you move around at the same time?  Well, now it's been replaced by a lock-on function which does let you move around at the same time!  Troubles may arise when you have to pick one target out of a group, but these moments are few and far between.  More importantly, being able to stay aimed at an enemy whilst able to dodge its attacks is pure gravy, and contributes to a feeling of power, unstoppability, and most importantly, fun.

Speaking of unexpected upgrades, Legends 2 has numerous surprises for you if you compare it to the original.  For example, certain attacks can deal status ailments, as seen in many traditional RPGs, such as fire, paralysis, and the dreaded Energy Drain, which not only empties your special weapon gauge at an alarming rate, but cuts your regular Buster's range to an unusable distance.  Okay, so maybe that's not so fun, but I appreciate the effort to add stuff to the game.  Like the side-quests and bonus games, such as the jet-shoe races and the trivia quiz.  I'm not kidding about that last one.  There are also auxiliary ruins, which do not provide plot coupons, but are good for money and gear.  Not that I need all the extra swag as an excuse to take them on; dungeon crawling is the strong point of both Legends 1 and 2, so it was nice of Capcom to give us even more of it.  Furthermore, the graphics got a huge boost from the first game.  Textures are more detailed, and even the money pickups look better than before.  That's the level of detail we're dealing with, p
He can also suffer status ailments.
The good elements of Mega Man Legends 2 are so amazingly good, but -- pardon the spoiler -- I won't be giving this a perfect score.  Although many elements were improved from its predecessor, there is one aspect in which it took a step back.  In the first game, if you wanted to change special weapons, you could call upon Roll's support car and carry out this function from anywhere in the overworld.  But this time around, that feature is gone.  With scant exceptions, you'll have to backtrack to the Flutter's landing site whenever you feel your equipped cannon, missile launcher, or drill is not up to task. However, at any time, you are able to go to the pause menu and switch between your special weapon and the Lifter, to pick up objects.  (Which, by the way, isn't used too often, but is another welcome addition to the Legends formula.)  Would it be too much to ask for the ability to switch between even one more special weapon?

See, this is why I think the Mega Man Legends games sold as poorly as they did (the first game sold less than a million copies worldwide; Legends 2 sold under half a million).  It's things like that which create an experience which is just similar to the classic Mega Man formula, but only on the most basic levels.  It is my conjecture that if instead of the Legends we got, the first 3-D Mega Man followed the more traditional... traditions of playing levels in any order and using special weapons from the bosses, albeit utilising the exact same engine and control scheme of Legends, it would've been a more palatable experience for the rest of us.  Then again, I'm guessing a lot of people who like the Mega Man Legends series like it for its story, so forget about it.

And then there are the underwater ruins -- two of them in fact, the second being optional -- where the frame rate takes a dive, pardon the pun.  If you thought the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time was the worst water level in all of gaming... you'd be right, but at least it runs faster than this!  (I'm told this was fixed for the PSP version, however -- once again -- it was not exported out of Japan.  Yes, I know the PSP is region-free, but there's still the language barrier to get over)  Still, while this moment was not what I'd define as fun, it's only a fleeting moment of un-fun in one of the most fulfilling video game experiences around.

Recently, I've been trying to take stock of my favourite video games of all time.  So far, my list includes titles like Super Mario World, DoomThe Legend of Zelda: Majora's MaskHalf-Life 2Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Just Cause 2... notice a pattern?  They all built off a previous title, but surpassed its predecessor in terms of both quantity and quality.  In that regard, I can say with a clear conscience that Mega Man Legends 2 is both a stellar sequel, and a worthy addition to my list of favourite games.  Once you experience such customs as the new lock-on system, you'll wonder how you ever managed playing the first game without it.  And I'm not saying all sequels need to do that, but a good sequel should fix what was wrong about the first entry whilst expanding upon its strong points, and it is in that regard which Mega Man Legends 2 succeeds with flying colours.

Edit 13 July 2016: Oh yeah, and Legends 2 is finally available on the PlayStation Store, just US$10 for PS3, PSP, and PS Vita.  Considering that original hard copies of the game have become quite rare and expensive, you now have no excuse not to check it out.  Seriously, buy it now.  That's what the Dragon Award is for (pardon the spoiler).

Positives:
+ A far longer game than its predecessor.
+ Many interesting environments and characters.
+ Analog control support is available, if you're interested.
+ The lock-on function improves the flow of action.
Negatives:
- The lock-on function may not always pick out the right target.
- Dealing with status elements can be frustrating.
- Changing special weapons is less convenient than in the first game.
- The slow-paced water level.

Control: 4 Refractors out of 5
Design: 4 Refractors out of 5
Graphics: 5 Refractors out of 5
Audio: 5 Refractors out of 5
The Call: 90% (A)


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Game Review: Mega Man Legends


Mega Man Legends / Mega Man 64
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Release:
    • PlayStation, 19 September 1998
    • Nintendo 64, 16 January 2001
    • PlayStation Portable, 4 August 2005 (Japan only)
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save:
    • PSX: Memory Card, 1 block
    • N64: Built-in
    • PSP: Memory Stick, 360KB
This review was updated on 12 July 2016.

As simulated three-dimensional graphics (not to be confused with the stereoscopic 3D effects of today) became cost-effective in the mid-1990s, the video game characters we knew and love evolved to adapt it, with varying results.  Mario did it with Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996), and it was good.  Sonic did it with Sonic R (Saturn, 1997), and it was bad.  Bubsy the cat did it with Bubsy 3D (PlayStation, 1996) and OH DEAR NEPTUNE DON'T EVEN GO THERE!  And then there's Mega Man, who had made a name for himself with (as of 1997) eight games in the original series and four in the Megaman X series, all following the same concept.  Run and gun through eight or so levels in any order, taking weapons from the bosses and using them to exploit others' weaknessess.  So along comes Mega Man Legends, and in the transition to three dimensions, it takes great liberties with this formula.  Do these changes work in its favour, and more importantly, does the gameplay survive the jump to 3D?

The first thing you should know about Mega Man Legends in comparison to the other spin-offs is that it places a heavier emphasis on story.  The universe it takes place in is a world reduced to assorted islands, with sky pirates travelling amongst them in airships and collecting oversized gems called Refractors from underground ruins.  Our hero and player-character is one such Digger, Megaman Volnutt.  Basically, he's like Indiana Jones as filtered through a shonen robo-punk anime.  He flies about with his sister and spotter Roll Caskett, and her grandfather Barrel, on a ship called the Flutter.  After a tutorial level, the Flutter crash-lands on Kattelox Island, where Megaman and Roll set out to find Refractors and other parts to fix their ship.  The plot alternates between this scavenger hunt and exploits against a family of ne'er-do-well pirates known as the Bonnes, consisting of miss Tron Bonne, mister Teisel Bonne, Bomb Bonne, their giant robot baby (!), and a legion of forty Servbots.  Picture the Servbots as the minions from Despicable Me crossed with Lego minifigures.  In other words, [verb]ing adorable!!
Much of the action takes place in underground ruins.
Given the story I just described and the gameplay's adherence to it, Legends dispenses with the traditional Mega Man structure.  Indeed, the only thing linking it to the other series is that its main character is, in the words of Brentalfloss, "blue and cyan with a gun for a hand".  Certain conventions of the original series do reappear in spirit, however.  In addition to the traditional Buster Gun, you can use special weapons, but instead of picking them up from bosses, you find junk items in the over- and underworlds, and get Roll to craft weapons from them.  However, you must also return to Roll if you ever want to switch your special weapon, so this link to the original series (where you could swap weapons at any time) shows its cracks upon inspection.  On top of that, the Buster can be upgraded by finding parts to enhance its attributes, in a bout of RPG elements.  It's a little-known fact that you can entice me to play any old thing by working in RPG elements.  Military shooter?  Hmm, I don't know, there are a few too many around these days...  Military shooter with RPG elements?  [adverb]ing sold!

But despite the presence of RPG elements and a Saturday-morning anime aesthetic (remember when I coined that phrase?), could I still possibly harbour reservations about Legends?  Yes, from a certain point of view, but once again these complaints fall apart upon inspection.  The first thing that caught my concern were the controls.  Mega Man Legends was first released in 1997, so it pre-dates the analogue Dualshock controller.  As such, you'll have to use the D-Pad to move forward, backward, and to the sides.  To change directions, hold the L1 or R1 buttons to turn.  There is an option to have the D-Pad turn and the shoulder buttons strafe instead, but that's it for control customisation.  Yeah, it's a weird control scheme, and the handling of these controls can be a bit stiff, but honestly?  I got used to it rather quickly.  I like how the camera only moves when you turn, as opposed to automatic camera movement which, as a rule, lacks precision, never looks in the direction you want it to, and is just one more thing to wrestle with.

Plus, this setup makes circle-strafing a breeze, and believe you me, you're gonna be doing a lot of it. Manual aiming is handled by holding R2, although there is a degree of auto-aim to help you out if you turn it on.  All things considered, the control scheme is kind of an elegant solution given the limitations at hand, but since both the Nintendo 64 (funny I should mention that... read on) and Sega Saturn had analog-equipped controllers at the time, it's hard to take this on its own merits.  But that's what I must do as a critic, so let's move on to the game's scale: colour me unimpressed.

You've got the one overworld, Kattelox Island, from which you can find entrances to three main ruins, plus another ruins which, despite lacking bosses or plot artifacts, holds useful treasures and can be entered from all over the island.  The running time is padded out with special missions where you take the fight to the Bonne pirates, plus other mini-games and side-quests, but -- and I don't know about you -- I felt the game is at its best when you're exploring the dungeons, hunting through each room in anticipation of the traps and treasures lying within.  Let me put it to you this way: if the game had taken place 100% within these ruins, then I think the game would be stronger for it.  In the end, I spent around 6 hours in my first play-through. Taking on all the side-quests and building all the special weapons should add a couple of hours on top of that, and if you're willing to save enough money to fully upgrade all those weapons, then you can pad out your playtime considerably.
There are also a great deal of separate story missions.
But despite the scale of the game world being a bit lacklustre in my opinion, the world itself is vibrant in its look and feel.  Kattelox Island is dominated by its eponymous town.  One of the first places you visit on the island is Apple Market, a shopping arcade lined with businesses which you can’t buy from, save the Junk Shop, but you can still poke around them and read Megaman’s commentary on what’s in front of him.


The joke’s on him.  Those are just regular old Newsweeks someone dragged around in the mud.  But seriously though, all this flavour text brings the world of Kattelox Island to life.  So do the character designs, especially those of Megaman, Roll, and the Bonnes, which are well-suited to both the styles and the technical capabilities of the time.  And then there’s the voice-acting; it’s not spectacular or anything, but it’s not boring either.  Many of the actors on hand do try to wring out as much emotion as possible, which is more than I can say for other games of its time.
For example.

Mega Man Legends was also ported to the Nintendo 64, re-titled Mega Man 64.  In comparison with the original release on PlayStation, the N64 version has both pros and cons.  On the one hand, MM64 works with the analog Control Stick, which I personally find to be more comfortable to handle than the PSone's D-Pad.  The Z and R triggers handle turning, and you aim by holding both, which I personally found a more ergonomic, if not elegant, replacement for using a separate button.  Still, the translation of the face buttons is a bit confusing.  On the other hand, by virtue of being sold on a solid-state cartridge with, even in the most high-end cases, one-tenth the data space of a CD, MM64's audio-visual aspects pale in comparison to the PSone original.  Textures are less sharp and the voice-acting is of a more muddled quality (I'm just surprised they kept it in the first place), and on top of that the frame rate is choppy in all but the tightest confines.  So, should you choose the inconvenience of sub-par ergonomics or sub-par graphics?  Pick your own poison, I guess.  I should also point out that a port was also made for the PlayStation Portable, although sadly it hasn't left Japan.

Edit 29 Sep. 2015: The previous couple of sentences have more or less been rendered moot, now that the PlayStation version is available to download from the PlayStation Store.

It's funny, I went into this review with the mindset that Mega Man Legends was good but not great, but the more I scrutinised my sticking points, the less valid they became.  Maybe the control scheme is the best you can manage when you're stuck with one of the worst D-Pads in recent memory (but that's just me).  Maybe there is a meaty, engaging experience to be found in unlocking and upgrading all the special weapons.  I guess to be fair, I'm basing most of my criticism of this game against its sequel, but that's a review for another day.

Positives:
+ Changes the Mega Man formula in all the right places.
+ The underworld areas are fun to explore.
+ Even without analog support, the controls work well.
+ Good voice-acting, especially for its time.
Negatives:
- Changes to the Mega Man formula might put off some players.
- Could stand to have a few more areas to explore.
- Poorer texture and sound quality on the N64 version.

Control: 4 Refractors out of 5
Design: 4 Refractors out of 5
Graphics: 4 Refractors out of 5 (PSX) / 2 Refractors out of 5 (N64)
Audio: 4 Refractors out of 5 (PSX) / 3 Refractors out of 5 (N64)
The Call: 75% (B-)